Lost Olympian: wife keeps vigil

By Yvonne Tahana

Dynaero Microlight. Photo / Supplied
Dynaero Microlight. Photo / Supplied

The wife of a former Olympic sailor and prominent businessman was last night waiting in hope that the missing microlight pilot would be found safely.

Geoff Smale, 86, was flying solo from Auckland to Ashburton on Saturday but was reported missing after failing to reach his destination by 5pm.

Yesterday, search and rescue teams scoured several locations on the likely flight path but concentrated on a spot near Nelson, before the search was called off for the night.

Mr Smale, who sailed at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, is the patriarch of a prominent family who own and run the Smales Farm business park on the North Shore.

His wife, Shirley, was at their Campbells Bay home yesterday hoping for good news from the Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Wellington.

She said Mr Smale learned to fly at the age of 82 and was en route to visit relatives in Ashburton. It was a trip he had completed a number of times in the Dynaero microlight he bought two years ago.

Mr Smale loved flying but Mrs Smale said she never accompanied him on trips because of her dislike of planes.

Family and friends were with her throughout the day hoping he would be found safe.

The aircraft, registration number ZK-SML, is classed as a performance microlight but looks like a small plane. It has a nine-hour flying range and is capable of 250km/h, so Mr Smale would be able to complete the trip to Ashburton without refuelling.

He told his family he planned to fly from the North Shore, passing over Wanganui, Blenheim, Christchurch and on to Ashburton.

The head search and rescue officer, Neville Blakemore, said four helicopters combed hundreds of kilometres in those regions.

The team was investigating a partial radar track showing an aircraft moving south from Cape Soucis in Tasman Bay at 1.40pm on Saturday down through the Rai Valley northeast of Nelson.

That fitted in with earlier information that an aircraft disappeared from radar view just south of Taharoa in the Waikato about 12pm, then reappeared near Stratford before being lost again about 1pm near D'Urville Island in the Marlborough Sounds.

Mr Blakemore said the Cape Soucis data lasted three minutes. There were a number of reasons aircraft moved in and out of tracking range, including flying at low altitude, the terrain and the weather.

Mr Smale was carrying a locator beacon, radio, radar transponder and cellphone. The beacon had not been activated.

Harvey Lockie, a microlight enthusiast and friend whose son Bryn sold Mr Smale the Dynaero, said the performance model was kitted out with the latest safety gear.

One notable feature was a ballistic parachute designed to get both the plane and passengers out of rough weather.

"The parachute gets set by the rocket. It's not gentle. It's like airbags on a car. It's rough, it's noisy, it's harsh, but you walk away," said Mr Lockie. "It lowers the plane and passengers right to the ground."

Measuring 12 metres across, the orange and white parachute is designed to be easily seen from the air.

Mr Lockie said he doubted Mr Smale would have used the parachute on Saturday because the weather was settled.

"If he had to use the parachute you would expect he would be talking on the radio saying, 'Oi, I've popped the parachute and I'm on my way safely down.' You wouldn't expect to hear nothing," said Mr Lockie.

"It'll be nice if he's sitting in some valley where he can't be reached by radio saying, 'What took you so long?"'

Mr Lockie said Mr Smale - after decades of sailing and understanding how wind moved off sails - took to flying like a duck to water.

"He's a man I really admire for what he's done. There's plenty of 86-year-olds driving the mobility scooter down to the shops but not too many flying," said Mr Lockie.

"Geoff is a very determined sort of guy. He gets up in the morning and makes damn sure he's going to make use of everyday."

The Herald understands that in Ashburton, Mr Smale planned to visit retired Air NZ pilot Mike Leefe, who introduced him to light aircraft on flights around North Cape, the West Coast, Milford Sound and the Southern Lakes. Mr Leefe is the father-in-law of Mr Smale's son.

- NZ Herald

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